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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent


As Brazil struggles to contain the fast-spreading Zika virus, the Canadian Olympic Committee is warning athletes and team staff about the potential danger to some female team members if they travel to the South American country.

COC chief medical officer Dr. Robert McCormack has drafted a memo that is being distributed to Canadian sports federations warning that pregnant women should not currently travel to Brazil for pre-Games training or site visits, TSN has learned.

Dr. McCormack said women should also ensure they do not become pregnant for at least two weeks after they return from Brazil. The warning comes six months before the Rio Games are held in August. It’s possible it will be safer for women to travel to Brazil at that time, McCormack said in an interview.

“Right now, it’s as bad as it’s going to be,” Dr. McCormack said in an interview. “It’s their mosquito time of year. There’s the issue with Zika, and also an issue with the dengue virus and even malaria in some of the cities like Manaus, Belo Horizonte and Brasilia where [soccer] will be played.”

Brazil’s top health official has admitted the country is “badly losing the battle” against mosquito-borne diseases like Zika. Zika is suspected of affecting babies in utero, giving them brain damage and abnormally small heads. Zika arrived in Brazil recently and is spreading to other parts of Latin America.

More than 4,000 infants in Brazil have recently been diagnosed with microcephaly, a condition that was previously thought to be rare and has been linked to Zika.

Brazil’s government said this week that it will dispatch 220,000 soldiers for a day next month to spread awareness about the Zika virus. The soldiers will go door to door to across the country to hand out pamphlets about the virus.

“The issue is the spike in cases of microcephaly,” Dr. McCormack said. “We have teams and athletes going down now for site visits and training. But this is a high-profile event for Brazil.

They are already spraying daily and getting rid of stagnant water. And the problem with mosquitoes is much less in their winter, which is in August.”

The Zika virus was discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and is common in Africa and Asia. In May, an outbreak of the virus occurred in Brazil.

Symptoms include mild fever and a rash, typically accompanied by conjunctivitis, muscle or joint pain, and general fatigue that starts a few days after the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no current treatment for Zika.

The Centers for Disease Control has advised travellers to countries with Zika virus outbreaks to avoid or minimize mosquito bites by staying in air-conditioned rooms or sleeping under mosquito nets, and wearing insect repellent such as DEET.